"Fix the reporting system."
Counting Crimes in America
By: J.T. McBride
How much crime occurs in the U.S. each year? The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system was established in 1930. Seven major categories of crime were targeted. State and local police agencies were asked to submit data on a regular basis. Early in the 1990s, the scope of the crime-counting system was expanded in the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
Unfortunately, NIBRS has not been readily accepted by the American law enforcement community. All of America’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies still have the option of reporting (or not reporting) criminal activity in their jurisdiction. Most of the reporting law enforcement agencies still utilize the UCR system, while the others report via NIBRS.
The states have little uniformity when it comes to crime-counting. Some states mandate that certain types of serious crime be documented by local law enforcement, while others allow agencies to determine their own reporting policies. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) attempts to supplement these gaps by conducting interviews from coast to coast regarding criminal victimization, but the results of these surveys are “estimates” rather than hard data.
With a lot of “leakage” between the commission of the offense and national database processing, we really don’t know how much crime occurs in the U.S. each year. Estimates are that as many as one out of 10 serious crimes may go unreported. There are many reasons for this.
Research has shown that the most common reasons victims elect not to report relates to either apathy or fear. In some cases, the victims may be completely unaware of their victimization. Some institutions and corporations are reluctant to report criminal activity to “outside” authorities. History has shown that many organizations are extremely sensitive about their public image and tend to handle matters “internally” rather than involve the police.
When the police become aware of possible criminal act, they determine whether or not that act will become a reported crime. Depending upon the totality of the circumstances, agency policies and procedure, the skills of the responding officers, and a variety of other factors, the police may or may not document the crime.
If a report of criminal activity is made by the police, agency officials will “classify” the crime and that step will actually determine whether or not the report is eligible for submission to a national database. History has shown that some agencies have used this phase of the crime-counting process to “fudge” the data before it is submitted to a national crime-counting system.
Complicating the reporting factor further is that the legal definitions of various crimes may vary from state to state and on the federal level. It is often up to the clerical personnel who actually enter the data into the state and national databases to deal with these important matters. Further complications stem from “clustered crimes” where several different offenses occur as part of an “ongoing series of conduct” and someone must determine which data will or will not be included in the agency reports.
Internal and external political influence can determine the accuracy and nature of a state or local agency’s crime data reporting in terms of scope and reliability. Mismatched local, regional and state records and data management systems can account for discrepancies in crime data at all levels.
New types of crime are often missing from state and national crime-counting systems due to their very nature. Cyber-bullying, meth-lab closures, stalking of all types, school shootings, etc., are examples of new and important categories of crime that remain virtually unaddressed by existing crime-counting methodologies.
For all these reasons, action should be taken to expand the scope of the national crime-counting system and to mandate reporting by local, state and special law enforcement agencies. We can’t fight or prevent crime properly without good data to make effective policy decisions. Given our technology today, the age of merely estimating crime numbers should be history.
Chief J.T. McBride (Ret.) is the basic police academy Commander Emeritus and an adjunct criminal justice instructor at Lakeland Community College and a 40-year veteran of Ohio law enforcement. He may be reached at email@example.com.